Chernobyl’s accidental Wildlife Sanctuary

According to Yuval Noah Harari‘s latest book “21 lessons for 21st century“, there are 3 main risks that humanity is facing today: nuclear, climate change and technology disruption.

The first one, the nuclear risk, is recently reclaiming people’s attention with “Chernobyl“, a recent HBO production, that tells the story of the 1986 nuclear accident in former Soviet Union, one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history, and the sacrifices made to save Europe from a greater unimaginable disaster.

But what is less known is that in 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster, a closed nature reserve, Palieski State Radioecological Reserve, was established in Belarus to isolate the most affected territory of the country. While the area will remains inappropriate for human habitation for hundreds more years, wildlife has since flourished there. The reserve hosts many rare and endangered species, which thrive here thanks to the mere absence of humans. A complete ecosystem, the reserve is now home to large predators as Brown Bears, Wolves or the illusive Lynx, as well as herbivores like Elk, Moose and prospering herds of European Bison and Wild Horses (Przewalski’s horses – released in the Zone after the accident), and rare birds as Greater Spotted Eagle and Eagle Owl and White-tailed Eagle.

More than 30 years later, the area is the nearest that Europe has to a wilderness and gives key lessons on how wildlife doesn’t need us, and how nature can recover from worst man-made disasters to its primeval state, if only allowed to do that!

Chernobyl, Nearly 30 Years Since Catastrophe

MEGAFAUNA

The global climate during Pleistocene, from 1.8 million years ago until 10.000 years ago, alternated repeatedly between hot periods and cold phases when ice covered much of the world’s land masses. An adaptation frequently found among fauna during these glacial periods is an increase in size – when a living being becomes bigger, its volume which is where the body generates heat, grows more quickly than its surface through which this heat is dissipated – this is the age of Megafauna, time of an incredibly diverse and fascinating set of large mammals species, which are now extinct! Among most iconic species are the mammoth and woolly rhino (Eurasia), the dire-wolf , the saber-toothed cat Smilodon and the Americal lion (North America), the cave bear and the short-faced bear, giant marsupials (Australia), the giant deer, etc. This was precisely the world that Homo Sapiens stepped into as we spread beyond Africa, all the way to America. Had we never appeared, would those now-missing mammals still be here? And will they ever be back?

Except Africa, where humans and Megafauna evolved together, and African animals had the chance to adjust as our presence increased, learning how to be wary of us and evolving in ways to elude us, the Megafauna on the other continents was totally taken by surprise by the new invasive species, hunting in groups, mastering the fire and the tools to hunt them from a safety distance!

Today we can only see remnants of this lost world in natural science museums. But will one day some of these species be resurrected with the help of modern gene technology and biotechnology, which are progressing so incredibly fast? And where would they fit on a planet populated by almost 7.7 bn people today? The idea of a Jurassic kind of Park, but with mammoths instead of dinosaurs, appeals to many scientists (and businessmen), even if for curiosity, to push the limits of creation and see how far they can get (or for fame or profit)…Let’s see (I recommend an excellent book for who wants to learn more: Torill Kornfeldt‘s The re-Origin of Species)!

In the meantime, we can learn from history and make sure we won’t drive into extinction other species or the entire ecosystem we rely upon, to be wise enough to stop the Holocene 6th mass species extinction (also known as Anthropocene extinction or Quaternary extinction event), that we humans started with Megafauna, and continues with today Wildlife species at accelerated speed!

cave bearsdr

Giant Deer

Pollinators: what’s all the buzz about?

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from a male part of a plant to a female part of a plant, enabling later fertilization and the production of fruits and/or seeds. According to latest Living Planet Report 2018 by WWF, the majority of flowering plants need pollination, as much as “from an average of 78% in temperate-zone communities to 94% in tropical communities“!

Between 100,000 and 200,000 species of animal act as pollinators of the world’s 250,000 species of flowering plant, as per Wikipedia. The majority of these pollinators are insects (more than 20,000 species of bees, many other types of insects e.g. flies, butterflies, moths, wasps and beetles), but about 1,500 species of birds and mammals also visit flowers and may transfer pollen between them. Our food production depends heavily upon these pollinators – more than 75% of the leading global food crops. From economic point of view, pollination increases the global value of crop production by US$235-577 billion per year to growers alone and keeps prices down for consumers by ensuring stable supplies.

Agricultural intensification (through use of pesticides) and urban expansion is one of a number of key drivers of pollinator loss, especially when natural areas, that provide foraging and nesting resources, are degraded or disappear. The abundance, diversity and health of pollinators is also threatened by a number of other drivers including a changing climate, air and noise pollution, invasive species and emerging diseases and pathogens (as I learned in a local crash-course I recently attended – photos here -, domestic bees in Europe are now entirely dependent on humans for medication and protection from invasive parasites, from which they have no natural immunity).

Pollinators are the foundation for a stable ecosystem. If only a few species of plants depended on pollinators the overall effect would not be as devastating however, but this is not the case! As the artistic graffiti shows below, this is bad news for all ecosystem, including wildlife and people, the world as we know it would vanish! In this regard, to help humans be more environmentally responsible, we made few suggestions to follow (on our @Eco page) in our daily lives, to avoid such a terrible probability, knowing the risk is real and time is running out!

population counts.jpg

Power of example

There is nothing more pleasant than a walk in the country side, on a sunny autumn day! Very fast you come to accept the slower pace of life – meaning the normal pace of life, the one that exists outside office and city life but you are not very familiar with lately – and you come to terms with nature, which gets along its way regardless. This time of year, trees and wildlife prepare for the colder season, already the lower temperature at night and shorter days have turned the leaves yellow or red, just before falling on the ground and turning into rich black soil, from which fresh life will flourish next spring, resuming relentlessly the cycle of life! The sheep are coming down from the mountains to lower winter grounds, a nice spectacle to watch, still unfolding in many corners of the world, whereas some wildlife species have their underground borrows ready, storing latest provisions from the rich autumn menu – forest fruits, acorn, nuts, herbs etc, in preparation for hibernation!

clean path 3sheepclean path 2

yellow treeburrowred tree

However one thing disturbed the picture and my peace of mind, the plastics left behind by the ubiquitous consumer. But I did come prepared, as this is not something new I come across in nature, so I rolled my sleeves, dived in, and almost filled the two large bags I brought with me, leaving behind a clean trail, and making sure I showed my capture to all the passer-by, existing consumer and maybe, future environmentalists! Power of example, you find it in any specialty books, and doesn’t apply to office activities only, nature can also benefit, if you are willing to contribute!

garbage

Ideally this plastic can now be recycled, but at least it wont turn into micro-plastic to be swollen by births or fish, once it reaches rivers and eventually seas and oceans!

At the end of the day, I was very happy I could turn a favor to the Nature, after spending such a wonderful day outdoor, so I not only relaxed, but also came back home with a great sense of satisfaction! Try it sometimes, you will understand what I mean! 😉

Wildlife crossings

During the early 20th century, with the development of the internal combustion engine and the automobile, infrastructure had to be adapted. As Wendell Berry puts it in his “The World-Ending Fire” book, we moved FROM paths, described as a little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place, a sort of ritual of familiarity, a form of contact with a known landscape TO roads, whose reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste, wishing to avoid contact with landscape, seeking to go over the country rather than through it, its tendency being to translate place into space in order to traverse it with least effort. A road is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

FROM paths:

path1path 2

Today’s road infrastructure looks as science-fiction already, keeping us disconnected from life beyond the windshields and, as Wendell Berry mentions, a road advances by destruction of forest, or in case of modern roads, by destruction of topography.

TO roads:

Moscow infraThailand infra 2

The development of roads affects wildlife by altering and isolating habitat and populations, deterring the movement of wildlife, and resulting in extensive wildlife mortality, roadkill becoming a common sight in most industrialized nations. Very large numbers of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are killed on the world’s roads every day, the number in the United States being estimated at a million per day, an estimated 1.25 million insurance claims are filed annually due to collisions with deer, elk, or moose, amounting to 1 out of 169 collision damage claims. About 350,000 to 27 million birds are estimated to be killed on European roads each year. Not to mention the number of reptiles and insects as well…This is important because of the animal suffering, loss of wild animals (paving the way to extinction for many endangered species), road safety, and the economic impact on both drivers and road management. 

What can be done? As a driver always respect the speed limit and pay attention to the warning signs, in non-urban areas. Politicians could do even more, by including in the infrastructure budgets the so called wildlife crossings, which again, are a must, considering how much asset damage and suffering can avoid not only for wildlife, but also to their voters.

deer-crossinggreen corridorsman-made-wildlife-crossing-over-highway

Have a safe drive!

Trade of Wildlife

TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, is the leading non-governmental organization working globally on the trade of wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity and sustainable development. As per their definition, “Wildlife trade is any sale or exchange of wild animal and plant resources by people. This can involve live animals and plants or a diverse range of products needed or prized by humans—including skins, medicinal ingredients, tourist curios, timber, fish and other food products”.

As per their data as well as other official sources ,illegal wildlife trade is widespread and constitutes one of the major illegal economic activities, comparable to the traffic of drugs and weapons. In the early 1990s, crimes against wildlife were rampant in certain parts of the United States, and poaching may have equaled or exceeded the number of animals hunted legally (report). In other parts of the world, things get even worse, with entire trans-national supply chains and organized crime behind, from the field poachers to white collar intermediaries and further to consumers, trading the rare species (dead or alive) from wilderness on various continents to insatiable consumer markets in Asia, mainly China and Vietnam. The best known are the notorious ivory trade (with long history of various consumer countries introducing import-bans, sometimes removing them – as in case of relaxation of legislation in debate during Trump administration, or producer countries as Kenya/Tanzania burning the confiscated stocks) and rhino-horns trade, also mentioned in Misha Glenny‘s Mc Mafia book, notes @Facts.

In the zone I am more familiar with, Eastern Europe, I could say, with minimum risk of generalizing, that every person with a legal license for hunting has been at least once in his lifetime a poacher. And not only persons having a gun, but also the ones setting snares in the forest, that trap wildlife for consumption, their own, their families and friends, and even for small scale skin trade on local markets (unless a more influencing middlemen is involved, that can have cross-border connections to reach foreign customers). The profile of a such an opportunistic poacher in the region is of a man (18-70 years old), poor by local economic standards, with minimum education and no stable income, living at periphery of a forest (striking similarity with Frederic Rouge’s painting, dating couple of hundreds years ago, proving some people and practices may not have changed much meanwhile).

Le_braconnier_par_Frédéric_Rouge      The Poacher by Frédéric Rouge

Legal wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which currently has 183 member countries called Parties, and protects species listed under Appendix I threatened with extinction, with commercial trade in wild-caught specimens, or products derived from them, being prohibited. This rule applies to all species threatened with extinction, except in exceptional circumstances (and also explains what we have learned at Sigean, that they no longer host elephants in the park because they cannot import anymore).

TRAFFIC data:

From 2005 – 2009 the legal trade corresponded with these numbers:

  • 317,000 live birds
  • More than 2 million live reptiles
  • 2.5 million crocodile skins
  • 2.1 million snake skins
  • 73 tons of caviar
  • 1.1 million beaver skins
  • Millions of pieces of coral
  • 20,000 mammalian hunting trophies

In the 1990s the annual trade of legal animal products was $160 billion annually. In 2009 the estimated value almost doubled to $300 billion. This is a huge industry by any standard, and painful to see the scale of it and the trend evolution (even knowing that any ban, as in case of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes would just boost the black market)!

The way I see it, legal or illegal, there is no morality, or justification for exploiting other fellow species with which we are share the planet, to obtain material profit (remember less than 200 years ago, during mercantile capitalism times, even trade with human beings and slavery were considered acceptable and even encouraged for economic benefit of land lords and aristocrats, being practiced for over 250 years). Various parties are sharing the blame, with consumers at top. But once again, the main blame I assign to the current unsustainable economic system, which from birth encourages consumption, competition for resources, accumulation of wealth and prestige, and inequality among people. This, coupled with human nature, craving to have more and to sit above its peers, is a formula for disaster. Ignore this affirmation as you wish, especially the ones happy with current status quo, but in the end it will impact you, one way or the other, if we don’t start paying attention to environment, to its wildlife, and to our own consumption habits! Empathy, responsibility, accountability, conscience and compassion (for all around us, not only for yourself and peers) should define all society, not ease and oneself material interest, social status and power!

Wildlife parts, confiscated from smugglers or tourists, at display in Warsaw International Airport.

Why being vegetarian is good for you, for the planet and its wildlife

A very complete, very well documented and very convincing guide to all of you who care about the planet, about its wildlife diversity and ultimately about your own and your families health! Or for the ones wanting to learn more about the truth…

As per the author, being a vegetarian is a personal choice, and he is not directly trying to convince you to become one, but he offers the cold facts following extensive research and analysis of how/what the world is fed today (mostly by meat produced by factory farms, but as well as industrial irresponsible fishing), the inefficiency of the system, the misery and abuses incurred to animals all over the world (but mostly in developed world), the real cost of cheap meat and the growing ecological debt, how the biodiversity is killed in the process, how the “farmed” meat is impacting your health (author got motivated investigating and writing this book when learning he would become a father)…and this can only lead to clear conclusions (quotes from the book):

” The factory farm will come to an end because of its absurd economics someday. It is radically unsustainable. The earth will eventually shake off factory farming like a dog shakes off flees; the only question is weather we will get shaken off along with it…

There is something quite sinister about the scorched-earth style of “harvesting” sea animals. The average trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures as by-catch overboard. The least efficient operations actually throw more than 98 percent of captured sea animals, dead, back in the ocean.

The question of eating animals is ultimately driven by our own intuitions about what it means to reach an ideal we have named, perhaps incorrectly, “being humane”

To accept factory farm, to feed the food it produces to feed my family, to support it with my money – would make me less myself, less my grand-mother’s grandson, less my son’s father

Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use, and the regular exercise of choosing kindness over cruelty would change us…Choosing leaf over flesh, factory farm over family farm, does not in itself change the world, but teaching ourselves, our children, our local communities and our nation to choose conscience over ease can…

We cannot plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular conscience.  We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?”

Eating animals cover

And adding to the ethical, moral and ecological parts of the topic, is the scientific medical one as well. Do remember: “You ARE what you EAT” ! (click for the animation video for better understanding).

Think for yourself, if you are eating genetically modified, artificially fed (including pesticides), hormones injected and antibiotics saturated “farmed” animals with broken immune systems that are not even able to reproduce themselves, aren’t you passing all this to your body? There are diseases today which relate to what we eat that never existed before, and they don’t exist in the last tribes of people living in the forests (juvenile diabetes, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, obesity, …). Thanks God we are still having Olympics – to keep the standard visible – and some people who care – like author Jonathan Safran Foer and others – otherwise we would simply take new reality as is, becoming ourselves “farmed” people, in a world where individual doesn’t matter, for the sake of “progress” of the specie (and material benefit of few others), not being even able anymore to judge for ourselves what governments and corporations are telling us and how that impacts us personally! As not only our health is compromised, but also our ability to judge, easily measured by the well known IQ coefficient, which continues to drop generation after generation. Among causes, as per this study issued by World Economic Forum, we cannot blame genetics for kids being less intelligent than parents, but quality of food and environment, and today’s technological gadgets and changing culture, that take away from us the challenging environment one needs to think, and the high quality food and clean air to assure the fuel for our brain cells! To remember that our ancestors increased brain sized when fire was discovered, allowing them to move to a high quality protein diet that could be assimilated by our digestive systems,  within an environment full of competition where only the most intelligent survived by outsmarting the other predators and allowed catching their pray, in hunter-gatherers type of culture/environment. Today, as Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens puts it, just because we know how to scroll down the screen of a smart phone doesn’t make us more intellectually-challenged than a hunter-gatherer that lived more than 70.000 years ago, trying to escape predators and catch his prey, with his senses sharpen at maximum moving through and mastering its environment in his favor!

More summary and quotes from the books, specific to wildlife, in the Facts area!